Interview: Paul Merton on panto and Christmas

Interview: Paul Merton on his panto role

We talk to the comedian about dressing up for panto, his memories of Christmas and growing up in south west London…

Photo credit: Benjamin Mole

Comedian and presenter Paul Merton loves a bit of panto. He donned gowns and make-up to make his live pantomime debut as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at New Wimbledon Theatre in 2018. And he’s back for more, this time as Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington at Richmond Theatre, and he’ll be joined by his wife, comedy improviser Suki Webster, too.

We speak over Zoom after his photoshoot for the panto. He’s excited about both the show and playing the beautiful Richmond Theatre. “This wonderful Frank Matcham theatre is 125 years old and just standing in the auditorium today, even though it was empty, you can’t help but get a buzz knowing you’ll be here in December doing 60 or so shows.

So, what’s special about panto? Paul says: “I’m a great one for theatrical tradition. Comedians have played pantomime dames going back to before this theatre was built. You bring in today’s popular songs but you might also have routines that are over 50-years old. And panto is very much part of family tradition, too. It’s a show where a 90-year-old and five-year-old can have the same amount of fun.”

Paul is also looking forward to working with Suki, and they have worked together for many years. Suki is a founding member of the critically acclaimed Paul Merton’s Impro Chums. Says Paul: “It is wonderful to be working with Suki. In panto you come in and meet new people but we know each other very well and have worked together so much over the last 20 years so it is like having a shortcut. Most of my scenes are with her so I don’t have to worry. It’s very comfortable. One of the reasons I did panto this year is that Suki is doing it as well.

Paul and Suki, credit Benjamin Mole

It’s Suki’s panto debut. Did Paul have any tips for her? “Don’t stand in my way, don’t talk over my lines, don’t try to compete for charisma, beauty, or sheer theatrical superstardom. Just look as if you’re glad to be there…you should know that she is here now, laughing in the corner as I say this.

They don’t mind that it means working over the festive season. “Christmas Day is the only big day you have off so you don’t have an extended holiday. It’s nice though as everyone is buzzing. You’re a part of everyone else’s Christmas celebrations.”

He loves the traditions of Christmas but favours goose over turkey. The original Christmas bird, as anyone who knows Dickens’ A Christmas Carol will tell you. And of course, presents, too, but reflects: “As a kid, nothing beats the excitement of waking up to find your pillowcase full of toys or an orange – or a photograph of an orange, that’s how poor we were. They are the most thrilling Christmases. We don’t have children and I guess you relive that excitement through your kids.”

Paul, 66, was brought up in a working-class background in Morden. He remembers that there wasn’t much in the way of Christmas lights in the area at the time. He also recalls going to New Wimbledon Theatre. One of the first Christmas shows he saw was at the London Palladium in the sixties. “It was with the singer Engelbert Humperdinck. He was imprisoned in a cage singing Please Release Me… his hit single of the day.” Paul says it had no relevance at all to the actual panto!

One of Paul’s favourite presents was a pair of football boots. “I walked around the house in them for three days as it was snowing outside, they were the most comfortable shoes I’d ever had and there I was making holes in the lino with the studs.”

The comedian talks about his background in his autobiography, Only When I Laugh, from his childhood (his mother was a nurse, his father was a Tube driver) to his early days in comedy – Paul had previously worked for three years in the employment office in Tooting. He also talks about his manic episode in his twenties.

Paul soon became a familiar fixture on our TV screens with ‘Have I Got News For You’, as well as hosting the popular ‘Room 101’ on Radio 4. There are more ‘Have I Got News For You’ shows in the pipeline. Says Paul: “Because of the regularity of that I don’t have to search too hard for other things. I quite like not working, as well as working, one of my definitions of success is not having to work the whole time. For now, it’s all about having fun with this pantomime and doing a good job, which I’m sure we will.”

Dick Whittington comes to Richmond Theatre from 9 December to 7 January. BOOK TICKETS HERE